Paris is universally recognised as the style capital of the world, and Parisians renowned for their apparently innate ability to be effortlessly stylish. However, this is all the result of many years of fashion history accumulated in the French capital.
Stylistically innovative and technically flawless, such French brands as Hermes, Chanel and Yves Saint-Laurent have become synonymous with French chic. However, the French arguably owe their original chic to King Louis XIV, the spectacular ‘Sun King’ whose lavish lifestyle ranged from his extravagant palaces to his luxurious wardrobe. Realising the importance of luxury goods for the national economy, Louis brought creative industries, including the textile trade, under the control of the court, who would become the official arbiter of style.
Haute couture (bespoke clothing for a specific client) wouldn’t explode until the following century, when Paris would be its centre, and French designs were copied worldwide. Of the many fashion houses that sprang up, the most famous would be Chanel, who completely liberated women’s fashion in ways that are still being felt today.
If World War II and Nazi occupation would bring things to a halt, and even close down Chanel’s business, the world of strict rationing and textile shortages that followed wouldn’t help. Until Christian Dior, that is, who would revolutionise fashion with his ‘new look’, stressing a tucked-in waist and an A-line skirt falling to mid-calf, promoting an elegant, feminine silhouette. Dior claimed that ‘Europe has had enough of bombs, now it wants to see fireworks’ – and he was right. French fashion was flourishing again in the hands of Hubert de Givenchy and Pierre Balmain.
In the 1960s, French fashion would face another serious challenge – youth culture. This was being imported from the UK and US, and the leather jackets and miniskirts were taking off amongst French youth, who couldn’t afford the sophisticated, fabulously expensive creations of the top designers.
Enter another French visionary – Yves Saint Laurent. Saint Laurent would famously transition classic male designs – such as ‘le smoking’ – into the female wardrobe. His most important innovation was to become the first couture house to produce a Prêt-à-Porter, or ready-to-wear, collection. Suddenly, he had democratised the elitist fashion industry, and made it much more accessible. Today, almost all of the old couture houses market ready-to-wear lines, which gain more media coverage and therefore more positive publicity for the companies, and, in fact, make more money, since mere mortals can actually afford to purchase them.
You just can’t stop Parisian fashion, whether it’s through war, occupation or external threats. If there were to be a nuclear holocaust or a natural catastrophe, Parisians would still be seen cruising the boulevards in perfectly layered and tailored clothes – we should all take something from their style.